François de Belleforest, Histoires Tragiques

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Shakespeare did not go directly to Saxo or to the other Scandinavian legends we have been describing. Other versions had intervened between 1200 and 1599–1601 when Hamlet was probably written. Saxo's work was first printed (in Latin) in Paris in 1514; two more editions appeared in the sixteenth century. And when François de Belleforest translated parts of Saxo into French in his Histoires Tragiques (1572), many new details emerged that point forward to Shakespeare's Hamlet. The murdered Horvendil's ghost or shade makes an appearance on the battlements to his son, as in Shakespeare. The son's name is now spelled Hamlet. His adopting madness as a disguise is taken from Saxo, but Belleforest adds the information that Hamlet also suffers from the genuine melancholy that we find in Shakespeare's play. Hamlet's mother Geruth is now described as having entered into an adulterous relationship with Fengon before the murder of Hamlet's father. Belleforest calls attention to the excessive drinking of the Danes. His setting is, anachronistically, more a Renaissance court than a Scandinavian abode. Its elegant flooring is more suited to the French sixteenth century than to the Danish twelfth or thirteenth centuries. Belleforest sees a Christian justification in Hamlet's killing of his uncle, since Fengon's abominable guilt embraces the twofold impiety of incestuous adultery and parricide murder.

Belleforest's version is longer than is Saxo's, providing ample room for psychological insights and moralizations. Belleforest's account is more often in dialogue than is Saxo's. It repeatedly stresses the barbarous cruelty and faithlessness of an ancient Danish kingdom not yet having adopted the Christian faith. Belleforest inveighs against bold women who brazenly cast off the sacred obligations of chaste marital love. Hamlet, in Belleforest's account, is genuinely and romantically attracted to the unnamed young woman sent by Fengon to seduce him, but he and the woman virtuously resist the heady pleasures of sexual dalliance that threaten spiritual damnation.

Shakespeare wisely veers away from Belleforest's heavy moralizations, but he must have seen rich dramatic potential in Belleforest's account of Hamlet's stern lecturing to his mother, his asking forgiveness of her for having done so, his insistence that he has done so for her own good, and her contrite response to what he has said. This Queen is a mother who, despite her lamentable lapse into adultery, fondly hopes to see her son restored to his rights as heir and king, and accordingly agrees to distance herself from her new husband out of loyalty to Hamlet and his cause of rightful revenge. None of this is in Saxo.

15Most of Belleforest's account is retained in an English version, The History of Hamblet [Hamlet], 1608, an unacknowledged translation of Belleforest. Shakespeare cannot have known this version when he wrote Hamlet some nine years earlier. One or two changes may show that the English translator was instead influenced by Shakespeare's play. Even so, the 1608 text does provide us with an English translation of Belleforest, a work that Shakespeare appears to have known in its French original.

The changes in Shakespeare's version, assuming that he knew Belleforest, are of course stupendous. The characters are much more fully developed. Ophelia is now named and identified as the daughter of the previously anonymous counselor, who has become Polonius (or Corambis in the first quarto). She now has a brother named Laertes. The two escorts are now Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with a detailed history of their earlier friendship with Hamlet and their ambitions to serve the new king. Horatio, perhaps faintly adumbrated in the gentleman in Saxo and Belleforest who warn Hamlet of the King's plotting against him, is importantly enlarged in Shakespeare into an intellectual and moral companion with whom Hamlet can share secrets and discuss philosophy.

The plot is changed as well. Shakespeare could have found hints in Saxo and Belleforest of the young Norwegian Fortinbras who cannily agrees not to invade Denmark, biding his time until the scene of carnage at the end of the play provides him with the perfect opportunity to claim the Danish throne. The murder of the old King of Denmark by his brother is openly acknowledged by the murderer in Saxo and Belleforest; in Shakespeare's play it is a terrible secret. Without a Laertes to return from Paris so intent on avenging his father's death that he conspires with Claudius to poison Hamlet by means of a poisoned sword or cup, as told in Shakespeare's account, the denouement in both Saxo and Belleforest focuses instead on Hamlet's cleverness in outwitting his opponent. Nothing corresponds in the sources to the way in which Shakespeare's Hamlet passively attunes himself to the unknowable intent of Providence. Belleforest's Hamlet is "subtle," like Saxo's.

On Hamlet's return to England, the overthrow in Belleforest of Fengon and his followers is fully as bloody and savage as in Saxo, even if in the French version the holocaust is morally sanctioned by the flagrant debauchery of those who perish in the flames. To Fengon, as he lies fallen with his head cut clean from his shoulders, Hamlet declares (quoting from the 1608 English translation of Belleforest), "This just and violent death is a just reward for such as thou art. Now go thy ways, and when thou comest in hell, see thou forget not to tell thy brother who thou traitorously slewest that it was his son sent thee thither with the message, to the end that, being comforted thereby, his soul may rest among the blessed spirits and quit me of the obligation that bound me to pursue his vengeance upon mine own blood" (chapter 3). Belleforest's attempt to reconcile the pagan ethic of revenge with Christian idealism of salvation and damnation leads to the assumption here that Hamlet's father's ghost, now in hell, will be transported into heaven once his murder has been revenged. Shakespeare's Hamlet will choose a very different path, that of resigning himself to the will of heaven in the hope and expectation that heaven will know how to fashion a resolution far more satisfactory than Hamlet could devise for himself.

Stylistically, Shakespeare's Hamlet employs a dramatic mode of presentation instead of the narrative method of Saxo and Belleforest. As a drama, the play has no omniscient narrator. We witness the story from conflicting points of view, and must sort out as best we can its profound ambiguities as we attempt to understand what has happened. The handling of time is recast for dramatic presentation: instead of pursuing a continuous linear narrative, the play begins in the middle of things, after the death of the old King Hamlet. Only later do we learn of the murder, just as Hamlet himself must attempt to discover the secret of his father's death. The secrecy of the murder requires a cunning investigation on Hamlet's part that is not imposed upon the protagonist in Saxo or Belleforest, since in those accounts Feng makes no attempt to conceal the fact of his having assassinated his brother. Time in Shakespeare is foreshortened by compression, especially in the account of Hamlet's journey to England. The play dramatizes the episodes of this voyage through reporting of offstage action, in conversations and by letters, rather than by the straightforward narration in Saxo and Belleforest.

20Structural design becomes a marked feature of Shakespeare's treatment of the story: by adding Laertes and enhancing the saga of Fortinbras, Shakespeare provides his play with three sons who are called upon to avenge the deaths of their fathers. As a result, the play features more parallels and interactions of related plot lines than in Shakespeare's sources. Shakespeare is more interested in providing a plausible sixteenth-century Danish setting than are Saxo and Belleforest; Saxo's Denmark is of course that of an earlier era. The names of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, not in Shakespeare's sources, are those of aristocratic sixteenth-century Denmark.

The selection of Belleforest in this present edition is modernized and provided with glosses. It can also be found in The Norse Hamlet (Sources of Shakespeare), in paperback and in a Kindle edition. In addition, this work contains a new translation of Saxo's tale by Soren Filipski.